Current CSO offering pales in comparison to summer series

By Manasi Vydyanath

After the incandescent series of concerts this summer at Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra seemed a pale specter of itself last Friday. The cohesion, energy, and technical flair that characterized almost every performance at the festival seemed to have evaporated, leaving behind an apathy reminiscent of the draughtsman going back to work after three months of designing skyscrapers. The program consisted of Mozart’s fifth violin concerto and Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnol, Pavane pour infant défunte, Alborada del Gracioso and Bolero. This was very much in the tradition of the Haydn-Bartok pairings in the latter part of last season, combinations that were forced at best.

The result was that in every concert, without exception, the orchestra played Haydn miserably and delivered a brilliant rendition of Bartok. Their sentiments could not have been more transparent, but the overriding appeal of these derived programs appeared to have prevailed into last week’s concert. Pinchas Zukerman, the violin soloist, seemed to be an unconcealed enticement to beauty and interest offered by the CSO.

What might have happened had Zukerman been in his customary form is difficult to guess—it’s conceivable that he might have galvanized the orchestra and taken the work into undiscovered countries of expressivity. Both Zukerman and the concerto undeniably possess such potential. The piece is one of Mozart’s more intriguing works, built around dramatic counterpoint and bold, dashing melody lines, turbulent dynamic shifts, and uncertain harmonies. The CSO launched a hardly-silent protest by incredibly sloppy crescendi—more plateaus than hairpins. However, the distinctions between loud and soft were not sharp enough to aspire towards forte-piano dynamics either. The result was an unwieldy combination of both, with crescendi imprecise enough to inspire pure horror, especially when compared with the Mahler performances given by the same orchestra under the baton of James Conlon. The CSO at Ravinia sang with a tone that was reminiscent of the aureate glory that it attained under Solti’s direction: The deeply graduated, curving dynamics brought out the menace under the ging heut’ morgen über’s feld theme in the first movement, and the song-like second movement displayed volume gradations and phrasing so expressive that the vibratos of the string section began to converge into one voice. Even under the theory of rational expectations, it was difficult to reconcile last Friday with the image of the possible.

And Pinchas Zukerman was probably the greatest disappointment of all. Performance is indeed an unpredictable business, and sometimes even legends get tripped by fortune’s foot. In last Friday’s concert, this took the form of a very scratchy E-string on Zukerman’s violin that gave every shift and trill upon that string an eviscerated tone. The movement of his bow upon the instrument was also erratic enough to suggest that he had neglected to put enough rosin upon his bow—and as if to crown the evening, he played Mozart with a truly Brucknerian rubato. One of the stylistic rules of performing Haydn and Mozart is that rubato ought to be employed as sparingly as a scream in an oration, and to the same effect. Zukerman loaded every eligible note with rubato; the effect he aspired to create was a mellifluous, throbbing voice, but what he managed to achieve was hysteria and Wagnerism. He seemed aware of his violin string and bow miscalculation, as he smiled apologetically at the audience after his first entrance. I shall not fault him for his violin—mishaps happen. But I shall indeed criticize him for his overwrought rubato. That was far too evitable.

The Ravel pieces were admirably executed, for the most part. The orchestra seemed to enjoy playing them, and the Rhapsodie Espagnol with its myriad quotations was delivered with fire, passion, and pulsating rhythms. The fourth movement, the tripartite Feria was superbly contrasted—languor against fury. The percussion section was admirable. Ravel makes extensive and precise use of the instruments in this section in his handling of orchestral colour. Ravel’s attention to fine detail is legendary in its own right; his pieces are an analyst’s delight and despair. His pieces are replete with gorgeously layered timbral color, beautiful harmonic shifts that are complemented with instrumental transference, and tightly contrapuntal weaves, which were brought out with uncanny splendor.

The deplorable fact of the matter was that the orchestra tended to ignore its conductor. I only wish I were speaking in jest, but when Barenboim would stride about the podium, gesticulate, clench his fists and implore them to a crescendo, they refused to respond. One could, of course, blame the orchestra for its lack of discipline. But one could also turn around and fault the conductor for his lack of artistic leadership. If such a large body of individuals could be induced to mass insubordination, against the very man who is meant to shape their aesthetic vision, that must say something about their trust in him. The orchestra responded like a Stradivarius to every touch of James Conlon at Ravinia—and with good reason. Conlon did not just conduct; he led the orchestra. He was transparent, logical and charismatic enough to weld the CSO into the world-class ensemble that it has the potential to be. Ravel’s Bolero, which concluded the concert, was incandescent. The snare-drum players surpassed themselves, and the trumpets did wonderfully, especially considering that they were given absolutely no beat. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, in a gesture of theatricality, Barenboim conducted Bolero by standing utterly still.